Designing Classrooms that Work: Conception and Pilot Study

Publication November 1997

During the 1990s, educators and employers have been reconceptualizing the relationship between education and work. As a result, school programs that more explicitly link school and work have been expanded and developed, and many are supported by federal funds through the School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994. In order to realize the curriculum and pedagogical reforms that underlie these programs, teachers need appropriate staff development.

In 1996, RAND staff designed and pilot-tested a six-week “mini-sabbatical,” “Designing Classrooms that Work.” The mini-sabbatical was developed as a prototype course to help teachers learn how to make the kinds of curricular and pedagogical changes implied by school-to-career reforms, whether they work in career academies, cooperative education, school-based enterprises, or other types of programs.

This report describes the design of the mini-sabbatical and presents findings from our assessment of the pilot study. A companion report presents the mini-sabbatical curriculum: Designing Classrooms that Work: Teacher Training Guide (Ramsey, Stasz, Ormseth, Eden, & Co, 1997). Both of these documents should be of interest to educators engaged in school-to-career programs and to curriculum developers and teacher-trainers in district and state education offices or at universities.

Almost universally, America’s teachers have been trained to teach curricula that are school-based and subject-specific. However, federal legislation and school reformers are urging that teachers develop and teach curricula that focus on “generic” skills, such as problem solving and teamwork; integrate vocational and academic education; and emphasize “real-world” applications, especially applications found in the workplace. Unfortunately, most teachers are being asked to change their practice without the requisite knowledge or the means for doing so. To make use of the workplace as a context for learning, teachers need (1) knowledge of work and work practice; (2) an appropriate model for classroom design and instruction; and (3) the opportunity to learn and apply both.

In response to this need we developed a six-week “mini-sabbatical” for high school teachers and teacher-trainers. The mini-sabbatical proposed to give teachers the tools they need to gain knowledge that is necessary for defining curriculum and instruction in many school-to-career programs. Put another way, it is intended to help teachers answer three questions: (1) What to teach? (2) How to teach it? and (3) How to assess what students learn?

The mini-sabbatical was a six-week (four days per week) course, with six to eight hours of training per day. We identified four explicit goals that we wanted teachers to achieve:

  1. Increase teacher knowledge of work practice and the authentic applications of domain knowledge (e.g., math, science, and English) in work.
  2. Create high-quality, integrated curricula that incorporates domain-specific and generic skills.
  3. Adopt teaching roles to support authentic learning.
  4. Develop alternative assessments that provide meaningful feedback to students and the teacher.

The mini-sabbatical activities were organized around three phases. The first phase addressed the first learning goal by linking teachers to the workplace. It involved a week of preparation for teachers to learn how to carry out structured observations at work sites. In Week 2, teachers visited worksites, completed fieldnotes on their work observations and conducted interviews. The second phase of the mini-sabbatical, Weeks 3 and 4, focused on classroom design, including developing authentic assessments and curriculum development. This phase incorporated direct teaching by mini-sabbatical staff, activities to promote curriculum development, and group discussions and feedback. It also emphasized the Classrooms that Work (CTW) model for designing instruction, which the study team had previously developed. In the final phase of the mini-sabbatical, Weeks 5 and 6, teachers taught their curriculum units to a small group of students. During the teaching phase, teachers received feedback on their teaching from mini-sabbatical staff and through videotape playback of selected lessons.

The mini-sabbatical was structured to reflect conceptions of adult learning and learning to teach. Specifically, it incorporated the following design characteristics: active learning; focus on a concrete task (the curriculum design); opportunities for inquiry, experimentation, and reflection; and collaboration in a learning community.

Although the mini-sabbatical provides an intensive learning experience, it falls short of an ideal model because it is not directly tied to a long-term school reform or professional development strategy. The mini-sabbatical curriculum addressed issues about implementing change in the existing school context, but teachers were left to implement what they learned when they returned to their home schools. Follow-up conversations with teachers during the school year indicated that they had some success in sustaining changes in their teaching practice or in disseminating lessons from the mini-sabbatical to other teachers or school personnel.

Pilot Study Design

During the summer of 1996, we implemented the mini-sabbatical as a pilot test. The purpose of the pilot study was to assess the feasibility of implementing the six-week mini-sabbatical and to determine whether the curriculum and process would achieve the goals discussed above. We recruited seven teachers and one teacher-trainer as participants from four schools in the Los Angeles area. The participants, five men and three women, had diverse experience and backgrounds. Five teachers taught in a transportation career academy program at two different high school campuses. Two taught at a medical magnet high school. The final participant, a teacher-trainer, was responsible for curriculum and staff development at a new math, science, and technology magnet high school. Their teaching areas included English, life science, mathematics, computer-aided design (CAD), architectural drafting, and mechanical drafting.

We recruited student participants through the counselors and schoolwide announcements at the high school that agreed to provide classrooms for the teaching phase of the mini-sabbatical. Each teacher was assigned from six to seven students.

The pilot test design incorporated multiple assessment instruments and other sources of data to assess the mini-sabbatical’s overall effectiveness and success in achieving each of the main goals outlined above, including journal writing (for teachers and students), written evaluations, teacher survey, curriculum designs, and a focus group.

Pilot Study Findings

Overall, we determined that the implementation is feasible, although somewhat time-consuming to organize, and that teachers were able to learn key concepts and incorporate them into the design and delivery of their curriculum units. The teacher participants were highly enthusiastic about the value of the mini-sabbatical with respect to the knowledge they gained as well as the opportunity it provided for changing teaching practice. Most participating teachers showed and expressed fairly substantial changes over the course of the mini-sabbatical that appeared to continue when they returned to their home schools.

Goal 1: Increase Teacher Knowledge of Work Practice

For most teachers, the activities designed to increase their knowledge of the world of work, as related to their specific discipline, were very successful and meaningful. Teachers were introduced to the skills they needed to perform, analyze, and document worksite observations. Presentations by mini-sabbatical trainers addressed several topics: (1) authentic practice, work context, and the rationale for worksite observations; (2) understanding work from workers’ perspectives; (3) techniques for observing and documenting work; (4) types of tasks suitable for the design of high-quality learning experiences; and (5) the logistics of the workplace observation scheduled for Week 2 (e.g., assigned mentor, schedule, and so on).

Teachers spent a week at assigned workplaces to observe work practice, take fieldnotes, and interview their mentor. We attempted to match teachers to worksites and mentors based on the teachers’ disciplines, their school programs’ industry focus, and the teachers’ initial ideas about the curriculum unit that they were going to develop.

After only two days of observation, several important themes emerged from discussions, journal entries, and fieldnotes which suggest that teachers were learning valuable lessons and new information about work practices. They discussed the importance of interpersonal relations at work, and the need to work with different types of people to build consensus. They noted differences in types of workplace communications, teamwork, and management styles. From these and other insights, they began to identify authentic work problems that can animate the design of project-based work in the classroom.

Goal 2: Create High-Quality, Integrated Curricula

Curriculum development activities (Weeks 3 and 4) first included an exercise to help teachers move from worksite observation to instructional design–that is, from job tasks to authentic problems. Mini-sabbatical trainers led a discussion about authentic practice, then asked teachers to discuss and write a summary of their own job study.

Teachers read and discussed alternative approaches to developing integrated curricula, and reviewed the CTW model. Teachers were asked to build their new curricula around a project or investigation based on authentic practice and solving authentic problems. We provided an instructional design template for teachers to specify several elements of their design: (1) summary of student product, (2) instructional goals (generic, domain, attitudes, or dispositions), (3) design (e.g., culture of practice, teacher role, assessment, classroom set-up), (4) teaching methods, (5) resources required, and (6) organizational supports (e.g., coaching by mini-sabbatical trainers or peers, preparation time). In subsequent sessions, teachers had opportunities to modify this “baseline” design and provide a rationale for any changes they made.

We assessed teachers’ progress in curriculum development by comparing the types of lessons and units they initially proposed, prior to being selected as mini-sabbatical participants, with the projects and topics they began to refine during Week 3. This comparison reveals some significant changes. One clear difference was the emphasis on group work over individual learning assignments. Final projects were much more “authentic” in their connection to real work settings. Another significant change was the integration of academic skills, generic skills, and specific competencies needed to carry out a project. Although their initial projects were often interdisciplinary or explicitly connected to other classes in the school program, they did not typically emphasize or articulate work-related skills. Teachers were also very inventive in defining their teaching roles and in creating a culture of practice in the classroom.

Goal 3: Adopt Teaching Roles To Support Authentic Learning

Teachers were introduced to the CTW model during the first week of the mini-sabbatical through a set of briefings, readings, and journal writing exercises. Concepts were reinforced in Week 3, when teachers began to develop their curriculum. Teacher evaluations indicated that the curriculum materials and processes were very useful for developing teachers’ understanding of the CTW model. Journal entries emphasized developing teaching goals, re-defining teacher and student roles, thinking of students as responsible learners and problem-solvers, and working collaboratively with other teachers on curriculum and practice issues.

The CTW model defines several specific techniques that teachers should adopt to enhance student-centered learning such as coaching, scaffolding, and fading. Adopting these techniques requires fairly significant changes on the part of teachers because they must give more responsibility to students for their own learning and not always take center stage. While teachers supported such pedagogical techniques in principle, they found it much harder to put them into practice. Some indicated that changing this aspect of their teaching practice was the most difficult and challenging part of the mini-sabbatical. In particular, teachers struggled with relinquishing “power” and control, and trusting the student groups to succeed with less intervention on their part.

Overall, while teachers were generally familiar with the concepts of student-centered learning and cooperative learning, they had not been introduced to a comprehensive model that outlined specific teaching practices or design principles for implementing such concepts. Nor had teachers had an opportunity to participate in professional development that allowed them to systematically explore and reflect on the implications of the model for practice.

Goal 4: Develop Alternative Assessments

Of all the mini-sabbatical goals, this one seemed to have been the most challenging for teachers. During Week 3, teachers participated in a presentation and discussion of alternative assessment, covering purpose; types of assessment; and the concepts of reliability, validity, and feasibility. Even experienced teachers had difficulty thinking about how to assess students’ performance in ways that aligned with all of their instructional goals.
In the final analysis, the mini-sabbatical was successful in getting teachers to think explicitly about assessments, even though they did not really develop formal assessment procedures. Rather, teachers tended to informally monitor student performance on a day-to-day basis.

Conclusions and Lessons Learned

Our assessment suggests that the mini-sabbatical met with success in achieving most of the goals we set out. However, we note some possible improvements to the mini-sabbatical curriculum and some observations about the process that might inform future staff development efforts of this type.

Teachers Need More Assistance in Developing Assessments

Teachers did not fully develop assessments to accompany their curriculum. This is partly due to the situation–teachers taught an experimental class where students were paid for their participation. Students were not working for grades, and teachers were not required to turn them in.

In addition, we found that most of the teachers were unfamiliar with the concepts and approach toward developing assessments presented in the mini-sabbatical curriculum. As a result of limitations in teachers’ knowledge about assessment design, the staff did not press teachers to complete assessments.

Future implementations of the mini-sabbatical can be modified to accommodate teachers’ level of expertise or comfort with their assessment development skills. The schedule could be modified by extending class time to permit more time for discussion and practice, to explicitly require teachers to develop assessments for their particular curricular units, or to identify assessment or evaluation practices used at the worksites.

Teachers Had Difficulty Relinquishing Control Over Learning

Our observations and teachers’ discussions and journals indicate that giving up control of the classroom processes was a significant challenge for most of the teachers. The CTW model instructs teachers to adopt teaching techniques that place more responsibility for learning on students. The teachers’ role is to provide coaching or scaffolding to assist students as needed to enable them to make progress, but then to “fade”–to let the students proceed on their own. The teacher’s primary role is as a guide or coach, not as a source of the answers. This shift in behavior requires teachers to trust that students can do the work and to permit them to proceed on their own, and also to sometimes fail.

Teachers initially expressed their conflict as resulting from doubts about the students’ abilities or their level of preparation. As time went on, teachers explicitly discussed this issue as a matter of giving up power and control. And many continued to struggle throughout their teaching.

Teacher Collaboration Is an Important Catalyst for Learning

An important design aspect of the mini-sabbatical was to establish a learning community by having teachers work as a collaborative group and use each other as resources, critics, inspiration, and so on, as they developed their curriculum. Teachers typically have little time for collaboration and are used to working in isolation. By having teachers establish their own “community of practice,” we hoped to provide a model for collaboration that they could take back to their home schools and, ideally, establish as part of their everyday practice. In addition, their own group work and interaction might give them insights about how to design and support collaborative work for their students.

Staff Development Should Support the Reflective Practice

The mini-sabbatical supported teachers’ reflection on their own learning and practice through journal writing, videotaping, and adopting an action research approach to teaching. These methods were not uniformly successful, as some teachers did not write journals regularly or action research did not appeal as a strategy for teachers to systematically understand and monitor their own practice. We conclude that the group collaboration was most valuable for promoting reflective practice, since it did not depend on teachers also taking the time to write in their journals. The value of collaboration through shared planning time or other means has been corroborated in many other studies of teaching.

Industry Experience Is Not Sufficient for Developing Work-Related Curricula

Research on approaches for integrating academic and vocational education often suggests that academic and vocational teachers should collaborate because each brings different expertise to the curriculum development process–the academic teacher brings subject-matter expertise, while the vocational teacher contributes work-related knowledge and experience. Although this characterization is undoubtedly true at some level, it does not necessarily mean that academic or vocational teachers’ past experience prepares them to create project-based curriculum that reflects authentic work practice. Even teachers with relevant work experience may need assistance in translating that experience to first identify authentic problems and then to transform those problems into a curriculum that meets a complex set of learning goals for students.

The workplace observation phase of the mini-sabbatical proved very successful in helping even experienced teachers think about the workplace as a source of information for designing curriculum projects that both engaged students and taught subject-specific knowledge. The approach enabled teachers to learn about the social nature of work–for example, whether projects are carried out by groups or individuals, how teams are comprised and managed, and how supervisors motivate staff–as well as the knowledge and skills that individuals need to carry out a particular job. Understanding the social aspect of work is important for classroom design under the CTW model because it helps reveal problems and projects that can be simulated in the classroom. Learning about these non-technical skill requirements may require vocational teachers to modify the usual way they look at work requirements.

Work-Based Learning Requires Different Teacher Planning

An important challenge for teachers developing integrated curricula is the need to incorporate work context into their instructional planning. This requirement necessarily broadens teachers’ instructional goals to include goals related to learning generic skills and work-related attitudes in addition to the basic subject matter. It also challenges teachers to incorporate relevant aspects of work practice into classroom design in order to replicate the social context of work–for example, teachers may need to organize team activities where students adopt different roles. When students are given more control over the learning process, as in problem-oriented, project-based assignments, classroom activities may be more fluid and unpredictable–teams may proceed at different paces or require different amounts of guidance. Thus, teachers may be called on to improvise more often and to frequently make use of opportunistic moments for advancing their instructional goals.

The mini-sabbatical began with a premise about what teachers needed to know in order to teach in school-to-career programs–knowledge about work and knowledge about designing classrooms and assessing students. It also began with the premise that any staff development process for teachers should adopt an adult teaching model, including such features as opportunity for reflection, collaboration, and active learning. Our pilot test indicates that the mini-sabbatical content and process, with some small modifications, is an effective approach for changing teaching practice. We believe that our approach is a useful starting point for developing both inservice and preservice programs for teachers, particularly those involved in school-to-career programs.

Stasz, C. (1997, November). Designing classrooms that work: Conception and pilot study. Berkeley, CA: National Center for Research in Vocational Education.

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